We dont publish books to make money

August 5, 2011
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One of the leading publishers of religious literature, Eerdmans Publishing Co. celebrates its centennial this year. The Grand Rapids-based company has more than a thousand titles in print including works by C.S. Lewis and the popular children’s book “The Child’s Bible,” by Catherine F. Vos.

During a time when many publishing companies are struggling due to the economic downturn and evolving forms of communication, Eerdmans has continued to thrive. Some of the success can be attributed to the company’s strong backlist: older titles kept in print, which comprise well over half of Eerdmans’ inventory.

Many Eerdmans books are meant for academic circles, and there is a strong focus on connecting local churches and academics using mutually relevant material. But what has really brought the company through hard economic times is, as Vice President Anita Eerdmans phrases it: “A high tolerance for not making money.”

The driving force at Eerdmans has always been putting out a good publication. Being an independent, family-owned business gives the publishers the freedom and flexibility to publish something whether they think it will make money or not. There is no market research and there are no shareholders to answer to.

“We don’t publish books to make money,” said Anita Eerdmans. “We make money to publish books.”

William B. Eerdmans Sr. opened the company’s doors after immigrating to Grand Rapids from The Netherlands and attending Calvin Theological Seminary. While at school, Eerdmans peddled books to support himself. It was eventually suggested to him that he had more of a knack for this than for his chosen area of study, and by 1911, he and his business partner, Brant Sevensma, formed the Eerdmans-Sevensma Co. Sevensma was later bought out.

Eerdmans began the company when he saw a need for Dutch settlers in his community to have religious literature in their native language. Very early on, he concluded he wanted a more national focus. His selection of books expanded to works by Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and so on.

The company evolved from a distributor of religious literature to a printer/publisher, and now focuses solely on publishing, but the ecumenical focus remains the same. Bill Eerdmans Jr., who succeeded his father as president of the company, has continued in this progressive and inclusive tradition, publishing a broad range of books concerning racial equality, gender equality, opposition to apartheid, embracing gay marriage and recently Islamic religious books.

Eerdmans was founded with W.B. Eerdmans Sr.’s hope to share his faith and provide people with quality religious literature. But as Larry ten Harmsel, local historian and author of “An Eerdmans Century: 1911-2011,” explained, Eerdmans has always been in the business of offering a broad range of viewpoints and promoting interfaith dialogue.

“What (the Eerdmans staff) tries to do is create a marketplace of ideas, a place for people who think about religious matters, but in the broadest definition of that.”

The Eerdmans collection also includes a regional and children’s section. Publications on Great Lakes shipwrecks, sports teams and people growing up in Grand Rapids reflect the company’s strong ties with West Michigan. The children’s collection has both religious and secular works.

When it comes to what it chooses to publish, the company has become known for doing the unexpected.

“This is one world. This is God’s world, though it’s a broken world,” said Bill Eerdmans Jr. “We feel that any book that expresses something humanly important and does it well is a candidate for our company — science, art and so on.”

Eerdmans made it through the Great Depression without losing a single employee. It is unique in having had only two generations of ownership in its 100 years. The company is grounded in faith but always finds room for varying vantage points.

“Our God isn’t too small,” said Bill Eerdmans Jr. “And the world isn’t too small.”

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